I was recently caught up in PBS’s six-part production of Wolf Hall. Created from Hilary Mantel’s novels, it dramatizes Thomas Cromwell’s climb from abused urchin to adviser to Henry VIII, and follows Cromwell as he negotiates the annulment of Henry’s first marriage, his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, and Anne’s undoing. After Boelyn’s beheading, the series ends as Henry embraces Cromwell, unaware of the latter’s thousand-yard stare over his shoulder.
Henry VIII wanted it all: he brushed aside the Pope to become Supreme Head of the Church of England and launched the Reformation to possess Boleyn. Heresy, treason, and lost usefulness were all capital crimes for Henry, but their definition changed at his whim; three months after receiving an earldom, Cromwell’s own neck was on the block.
All this was all a good five centuries ago, and now makes good theater, but I realized that the 500-year gap isn’t so vast. Half-vast, at best. We’ve advanced hugely in hygiene, safe childbirth, disease prevention and treatment, but less so in the areas of religious and non-religious tolerance of others and of general kindliness toward each other.
Granted, no one in this country today can be executed for heresy (“wrong” or “no” beliefs), but we have vocal religious factions — some of whom are also at odds — asserting that their dogma alone should be made America’s religion, denying that our founders stated clearly that everyone should be free to worship or not as they choose. Arizona has produced both politician Sylvia Allen whose bill requires mandatory church attendance and pastor Steven Anderson who would exterminate all gays.
Tudor England had to bend to every passing whim of Henry’s changing mind; one day death for believing in transubstantiation, another day for not; always death for an atheist.
I’m not preaching, but reminding that we as American citizens have something rare and precious in our religious freedom, cautioning that it can, as in other parts of the world, be lost. Belief, however fervent and fanatical, does not (yet) grant a license to torture and kill those not of one’s belief, nor does unbelief mean an individual has no moral compass. Awe and wonder come in many forms, in the soaring vault of a nave and the far ranges of the Hubble telescope.